- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- It ultimately played out as a five-point game featuring a scrappy Dallas comeback and real, live crunch time. That's all true.
Yet you never really had a doubt about how Tuesday's tale of two coaches was going to climax.
For Byron Scott? His morning appointment was a Coach of the Year press conference, and his night was capped with the sweet sight of Chris Paul's first playoff triple-double ushering his ex-Nets floor leader, Jason Kidd, into summer vacation. Which can only equate to all-day, buzzer-to-buzzer bliss.
For Avery Johnson?
The Lil' General had to leave his hometown wondering if this 99-94 defeat, wrapping up a 4-1 series rout for Scott's New Orleans Hornets, was an elimination game in the most literal sense.
"This is tough for me," Johnson conceded afterward, not specifically responding to a question about his job security but struggling to contain his disappointment after the Dallas Mavericks' second straight flameout in the first round.
"Obviously this is where I was born and raised."
It would defy weeks of ominous signals if N'awlins didn't also wind up as the backdrop for Johnson's last game on the Mavericks' bench. ESPN.com reported after Dallas' victory over New Orleans in the regular-season finale April 16 (Daily Dime) that Avery's job would be thrust into serious peril if the Mavs did not at least find a way out of the first round. Sources close to the situation have since disclosed that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban actually considered dismissing Johnson before the playoffs, specifically after Cuban and Johnson engaged in an emotional argument after a March 18 home loss to the Lakers.
Cuban uncharacteristically refused to speak with reporters after the defeat -- Dallas' ninth playoff loss in a row on the road since taking a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals -- undoubtedly knowing what sort of questions were coming. But Johnson was fielding queries about his future as early as the morning shootaround, letting out an unmistakable pause when asked if he fears that his job is in jeopardy.
Johnson then said: "I would hope not. I love what I'm doing and I love the team. Right now I'm just focusing on coming out and trying to get this team to play as best as we can. And then whatever happens tomorrow, then we'll have to manage that part of it."
If anything gives Johnson hope of hanging on after falling to 3-12 in the playoffs since the Mavericks' unraveling in the Finals against Miami, it's that there's no clear-cut candidate to replace him. Rick Carlisle and Jeff Van Gundy will undeniably be names of interest, but the partnership of Dirk Nowitzki and Kidd would seemingly demand an offensive specialist to maximize their potential as a tandem. The Mavericks, according to sources, would have definite interest in Mike D'Antoni or Flip Saunders if either is made available, but can they bank on either one?
There's also a chance, sources say, that Johnson might even be amenable to a mutual parting, given the likelihood that he would almost certainly become a candidate for openings in New York and Chicago. Sources say that the Bulls, anticipating Johnson's exit, have already had internal discussions about the possibility of hiring him.
What we know for sure is that the last 48 hours of the Mavericks' season were among the most chaotic of Johnson's tenure ... and none of it connected to how Kidd fits in his offense. Sources say Johnson's well-chronicled cancellation of Monday's practice was an angry response to discovering that Josh Howard did not cancel a birthday party previously scheduled in his honor at a Dallas night club Sunday night after the Mavs' heavy Game 4 defeat.
In-house frustration with Howard was already at its limit, courtesy of the former All-Star's miserable shooting in this series (which continued in Game 5 with a 2-for-10 finish after a 4-for-4 start) and multiple interviews Howard granted -- one of them hours before Game 3 -- detailing his offseason marijuana use. So you can understand why an exasperated Johnson, also apparently convinced that Howard was not the only Mav out on the town after such a damaging loss, kicked the whole team out of the gym.
The team then responded with a players-only meeting and a players-only practice, which their coach applauded at the morning shootaround.
"We had some of our leaders step up, which I've always wanted," Johnson said.
But Johnson also hinted at the depth of his discontent, prefacing his compliment by saying: "We came in [Monday] with the intention to practice. And then something changed."
Clearly not the smoothest preparations for a team in a 3-1 hole. Especially when various elements of the Hornets' series-long dominance didn't change at all, ranging from Jannero Pargo's scorching shooting off the bench (16 points on 7-for-9 accuracy) to David West's indiscriminate ability to punish defenders big (Erick Dampier) and small (Brandon Bass) and most of all Paul's brilliance (24 points, 15 assists, 11 rebounds and zero turnovers) in a performance Johnson likened to "a young Nate Archibald."
The Hornets' dynamo had 11 of his 15 assists by halftime, which was fitting on a night he became just the fifth player in NBA history -- joining Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Kevin Johnson -- to average better than 11 assists in his first playoff series. He also emerged from a second-quarter, double-technical tangle with Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse with a 3-point dagger to spark a 17-3 run that broke open a four-point game.
New Orleans never trailed and its lead reached 15 points by halftime, but Johnson can take a sliver of solace from the second-half fight back. When even Mavs loyalists had to be expecting a surrender, Dallas sliced the deficit to 63-57 and had a chance to get even closer when Nowitzki sullied his own triple-double bid (22 points, 13 rebounds and six assists) by missing two near-automatic looks by his standards. The Mavs then rallied again in the fourth quarter -- which began with Jason Terry defiantly marching into a Hornets huddle before the period began to proclaim that the visitors were not ready for their season to end -- by somehow slicing a 17-point lead to three in the final minute.
Enter Paul for the dagger rebound. The Mavs would have had a shot to force overtime had they been able to track down Paul's errant jumper, but the MVP candidate was credited with his 10th board when Tyson Chandler batted the ball out of the key and into Paul's arms.
Yet it's been evident to anyone spending any time around this team that the Dallas rally was an aberration. Johnson's successes in Big D are sizable and historic, as the only coach in franchise annals to win a Game 7 in San Antonio, take them to the Finals and post a 67-win season while also picking up a COY trophy of his own in 2006. But belief, unity, joy and focus have been scarce commodities for the Mavs ever since they beat these Hornets at home in their regular-season finale to avoid a first-round meeting with Kobe Bryant's Lakers.
This is the one loss in the series in which they didn't go down meekly. That's not all Johnson's fault -- you certainly can't blame him for Howard's sudden and steep decline -- but his relationship with the owner and his ability to reach these players in his famously demanding, hands-on manner has clearly deteriorated. It also didn't help that Johnson didn't start Terry until Game 3, even when the Mavs needed to be as small and quick as possible to keep up with the Hornets, and so rarely put Kidd in post-up situations against Paul to help his point guard when Dallas couldn't run. Factor in all the long-standing doubts about Kidd operating in Johnson's grinding half-court sets and the limited flexibility post-trade that the Mavs have to tweak the roster further and you can see why a coaching change is regarded throughout the league as an inevitability.
"We've had a great run with this group," Stackhouse said. "But when you lose in the first round two years in a row, you expect some changes. We're all hired to be fired at some point, from the greatest [Michael Jordan] to Harold Miner. They all see the end.
"We'll wait and see what the boss [wants to] do. No matter what happens or what changes are made, it's been a great situation for me the last four years. It's been a great situation for Avery for the last four years, [for Jason Terry] coming out of Atlanta. For the last four years, it's been a great situation for everybody that's involved. So if this is the end or whatever, you can't do nothing but say we had our chance. Had our opportunity."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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